Padded shorts and spandex are all in a day's cycle

 

BRIAN O’CONNELLleaves the recession behind and gets a flavour of what it’s like in the saddle on the Tour de Munster

IT’S 7.30AM and in the lobby of the Silversprings Hotel in Cork, and organisers Paul Sheridan and Declan Carey are busy registering cyclists, handing out jerseys and giving pep talks to participants ahead of the gruelling four-day Tour de Munster.

Downstairs in the restaurant, spandex-wearing athletes order extra portions of beans and try to get as many calories into their bodies as possible before hitting the road. Cycling legend Sean Kelly passes through, and the talk is of energy snacks, puncture repair kits and niggling injuries. I’m here to cycle with the group on the first part of their journey into Cork’s City Hall. Many of the 80 cyclists have left their day jobs and recession talk behind for 600km of some of the toughest cycling roads in Ireland, through the six counties of Munster.

The hope is to raise €100,000 for the Chernobyl Heart Appeal, and each participant is expected to bring in a minimum of €1,000 through fundraising efforts. Given the current economic climate, those targets have been harder to reach this year.

“We raised €115,000 last year and are aiming for €100,000 this time out,” says organiser Paul Sheridan. “I have noticed a lot more of the cyclists are struggling with the fundraising given the economic climate. We have also been affected by withdrawals from the event. Everyone who takes part does so at their own expense, so redundancies and job losses among participants have hit us.”

Despite the financial limitations, some of the participants have travelled from places such as Belgium, Oxford and, in one case, South Africa. Those taking part include fitness fanatics as well as first-timers with a sense of the greater social good. Margaret Hogan is a 25-year-old army private and is completing the event as part of the Gaisce President’s Award Programme. “I thought I was fit before doing this, but cycling is a different discipline to running,” she says. “I only started on the bike in March. The hardest part of it are the hills, but I should be okay, I think.”

Michael Corkery, 46, from Rochestown in Cork, is a director with SWS Energy, one of the main sponsors of the challenge. In the recent past he has completed several one-day events, but nothing on the scale of this. “Four days in a row, doing over 100 miles every day is going to be very challenging,” he says, “To do one day is almost in everyone’s scope of ability. But to get back on the saddle next morning and do the same thing again is not going to be easy.”

It’s almost 9am, and the riders are ready to pull out and begin their cycle. I’ve been given a mountain bike and the honour of joining the front of the group. Directly ahead of me is Sean Kelly, while behind me are 80 of the fittest, leanest and most determined looking cyclists this side of the Alps. Catherine Sheridan, 32, an engineer from Midleton and mother of twin boys, has brought her father along to give her encouragement. Friends William O’Connell and David Cantwell are hoping to raise their overall fitness ahead of an iron-man competition in the autumn. Others update their Twitter accounts on Blackberrys, which are then tucked into their vest pockets. Near City Hall, a large crowd has formed for the official launch, including Deputy Lord Mayor Cllr Laura McGonigle.

As we trickle through the streets of Cork, traffic pausing to appreciate the sight, and front riders warning those behind of dangers ahead, such as potholes or oncoming traffic, it feels exhilarating to be a part of this. I’m almost tempted to stay on the saddle. Almost.


To follow the progress of the cyclists, log on to www.tourdemunster.com